The Way It Was
From seasonal classics to wartime favourites, music was an integral part of Christmas family gatherings
We’d usually gather at my maternal Grandma Van’s, but this year, Aunt Ruth had invited us to her brand new home on Blaisdale Road in Scarborough, a new subdivision at the time. Sod had yet to be laid and mud was everywhere. Being ten, it was an adventure walking up the long wooden plank to her front door, conjuring up visions of Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
Aunt Ruth welcomed us wearing a black skirt and flowing, red lace maternity top. Most of the cousins wore red: scarlet velvet, crimson corduroy, or red plaid bow ties. Red was the unofficial Christmas colour in the ’50s. My aunts chose to wear glossy black taffeta or translucent nylon. My mother looked feminine in her taffeta dress with a pale blue bodice and a black skirt, accessorized with rhinestone earrings. I still have those delicate earrings in my jewelry box. They are a family heirloom and a reminder of her.
As our extended family had grown, we no longer had a sitdown dinner. Instead, we had a scrumptious buffet with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, green salad, tomato aspic, ambrosia salad, and a cheese and pickle tray. For dessert: fruitcake and shortbread cookies, a bevy of textures and flavours.
The best part of our celebration was the camaraderie and excitement in the air as Uncle Ralph retrieved his accordion. “Let’s sing ‘Jingle Bells’ for the kids,” he’d say.
“Jingle Bells” is often associated with Santa’s arrival and its tune set our little cousin Margaret off one year. A lively toddler, she scrambled under the Christmas tree and tore open the first available present— a pair of oversized underpants slated for Grandma Van! Unfazed, Margaret climbed in, hiked them up to her chin and continued searching through the gifts. Amid the laughter, Aunt Helen picked up her precocious youngster.
As Uncle Ralph played “Silent Night,” the sisters locked arms and swayed back and forth on the sofa.
“Play a Scottish ditty for Aunt Jean,” called Aunt Ruth.
We launched into “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond: ”
Aunt Jean danced a little highland fling as Mom, with flushed cheeks, giggled on the couch while sipping her glass of wine. We continued to sing more
“Oh, ye’ll take the high road. And I’ll take the low road. And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.”
traditional carols such as “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World,” accompanied by Uncle Tim on his harmonica.
Next came a rollicking, toe-tapping rendition of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” The young cousins bounced about the large living room as we sang:
“This next one’s for Gord and Ernie,” said Uncle Ralph. My Grandpa Van (Ernest Albert Van Slicker) served in The Great War and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” became an iconic song, symbolizing how soldiers longed for home.
Most people associate this tune with Remembrance Day, but it’s on my list of top-ten Christmas hits. For the longest time, I believed that everyone sang these songs at Christmas. Traditional carols were a part of our playlist but singing these poignant World War I and World War II songs, along with fun and rousing pub songs, made us unique.
My grandfather, Ernie, and his brother, Uncle Gord, had enlisted in 1914 to fight in World War I. My father and Uncle Tom were veterans of the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed in Britain during World War II. Perhaps these melodies were tributes to their courage. They had returned from the battlefield, enriching our lives with colour and music.
Now, most of my aunts and uncles are gone, cousins grown and moved away. The music, however, brings them back.
Aunt Ruth passed away in 1997 and I was honoured to give the eulogy at her memo- rial. The first Christmas after her passing, we all gathered at her house. Her daughter, Charlene, had arranged it. She found some old home movies and, as adults, we cherished those earlier times together. As we gathered in the living room that had hosted so many Christmas gatherings before, we connected with our younger selves once more in the company of our dear relatives. Though there was no sound, I could still hear the tunes.
“I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts. There they are all standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. Give them a twist, a flick of the wrist. That’s what the showman said.” It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go. It’s a long way to Piccadilly. To the sweetest girl I know.”